Johnny Nieto impressed me from the moment I saw him. The more we talked, the more I realized I was speaking to a natural born leader, possessed of the fortutude and wisdom of his ancestors, moving with grace and confidence in the material realm. The real deal. Walking in two worlds. Johnny says anyone can do it. Anyone can achieve their dreams.
Johnny Nieto of the Tule River Yokut Nation may be young, but he knows
what he stands for
He doesn’t mind taking the lead. In fact, he’s grooming for it.
When I asked Johnny Nieto if I could interview him, I had an idea. He had spoken to a small audience in Simi Valley about having four goals. They were impressive goals, and spoken by anyone else they might not have sounded so compelling and believable. I told Johnny I wanted to title the interview “Four”.
“That’s fine” he said, “but spell it ‘For’. My goals aren’t about me. They’re for the future, for the people, for the children coming up. Do you understand what I mean?”
Johnny wants to be a role model for Indian youth, but he also intends to represent native people on a broader level.
"My main goal is to be the Tule River Tribal Council Chairman. My second is to get my education. My third is to make it to the National Football League. And my fourth is to be the Senator of California. I set my goals high, because I know I can accomplish them and I believe in myself."
Johnny is from the Tule River Indian Reservation in Porterville, California. Johnny was named after his great uncle Johnny Pete Emeterio who was a United States Veteran killed in action during World War II. His father Rudy (Tule River Yokuts/Paiute) and mother Sonne Nieto (Tule River Yokuts), both live on the Tule River Indian Reservation. He gives his parents a great deal of credit for raising him in a good and balanced way.
"My favorite teachers are my parents. I'm a unique person, my parents are opposite from each other, but they are both athletes. My dad Rudy is the funny type and my mom Sonne Nieto is the business type. So I have the mix, the joking type and then when it's time for business, it gets done. They were my first teachers and will always be my favorite. They taught me right from wrong and to listen first, then act second."
Johnny was born into a family of leaders, and from them draws both strength and practical skill.
“While growing up, my uncle the late Philip D. Hunter from Tule River was the Chairman and a member of the tribal council. His style of leadership was always our people first, then himself. The thing I will never forget what he taught me for tribal council was, ‘If you can't take care of yourself and your own family, how can you take care of a whole tribe’. I took that to heart, and stayed the best that I can be."
Johnny's grandfather Marcus Hunter from Tule River was the Chairman and wrote most of the Tribal Bylaws. "I never met my grandfather because he died before I was born. He is one of my role models because he took care of his people when our tribe was poor. Before we had our casino, he used his own money to take care of not only his people, but his family too. I've always asked my mom, 'what was my grandpa like?' She tells me, ‘just like you’."
The elders of Tule River have also found a willing ear.
"I've always listened to elders, because they have the most experience. They will tell you how hard it was during their youth time and how easy it is for us today. So I use that as motivation, because life is getting easy today".
Nieto came to the conclusion that the Tribal Chair seat had his name on it at a fairly young age.
While growing up and attending Vandalia Elementary, Johnny was involved with school activities.
"I learned about leadership from Vandalia Elementary. I was on Student Council. In fourth grade I was a council member, fifth grade I was Vice President, and in sixth grade I was the President of Vandalia. During my terms, that is where I knew I was a leader."
Nieto wants to be the Chairman of his Tribe because of he wants to take care of his people first and represent them “...in a great way.”
"I’ve been ready for that Chairman position since I was sixteen. I already have it in my head that's my dream job. With our tribal bylaws, I have to wait until I’m 25 to be elected on council first. So that's why I'm going to school, to better myself and to be prepared even more. First and foremost, I want to take care of my people in any way I can.”
Leadership instincts in Johnny’s case are blended in a seamless fashion with athletic prowess and cultural pride. It isn’t all about looking to sit in a chair. Johnny can play, and he can dance.
At Porterville High School, Johnny was involved with school activities and sports. He was the president of the Native American Club at his high school for two years. He played football and tennis for his high school as well.
Johnny was the leader for his teams. “I never doubted them during competition”.
In football he played Offensive and Defensive Line, and fondly recalls being selected in the Native American All-Star Game 2010 that took place in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
“It was fun and I will remember the good times I had with the players. I was also in the newspaper there, because I drove the furthest from Tule River, CA to Muskogee, OK. It was a great experience and an honor to play in that game".
In tennis, he took control of the team and at the end of his senior year he took home the Most Valuable Player award.
While his ancestors and mentors figure prominently in his life journey, Johnny learned much of his personal leadership style in sports.
"Life is just like a sport, you have to know what you’re doing first in order to compete. As you learn what you’re doing, you have a time limit in order to win or lose. It’s like that in life. Nothing comes easy if you want to be the best, you have to train harder than the rest. You have to get an education, to get a good job. Then you will succeed. That is why I teach our youth to stay in school, because they are our future. The only person that can stop you is yourself.”
Nieto is currently attending Moorpark College (Moorpark, California) on a full ride scholarship from the Tule River Education Program, and will receive his Bachelor's in Business Administration. His favorite class is Business Law. Johnny likes to compare the American law to his own tribal bylaws.
"To be a leader you have to know what you can do, and what you can not do. I have learned a lot from college. The Moorpark College staff is great and I am glad I chose this school.”
Of all this, I will always remember my first impression of Johnny the most. White, green and orange; tall, bold and purposeful. Johnny is a grass dancer, and it is in the powwow arena that he is probably best known among native people from all nations.
The Grass Dance is an old style of dance, originating on the plains, possibly with the Omaha nation. Grass dancers would prepare the ground for ceremonies and celebrations by pressing down the vegetation and clearing away rocks and pebbles with graceful, sweeping, fluid motions, using the bottoms and sides of their feet and mimicking the flowing motion of tall grass in the wind with their upper body. Where tufts of grass were used originally, today’s regalia uses yarn or ribbon fringe to move with the drum and recall the swaying of tall grass prairies. Where function was the driving force behind the origin of the dance, today it is about form; style, athletic ability, knowing the songs, feeling the dance.
There are numerous stories abut the origins of the dance, but common to each of them is that these dancers came first, to make the way for the people who followed. Nieto wears the colors orange and green that represents Porterville High School; also he wears the symbol of Tule River's own Big Foot on his regalia. Everything he wears with his regalia was given to him from special people in his life.
Within the context of culture, Johnny's favorite thing to do is dance and attend powwows through Indian Country.
"I just love the environment of Pow-Wow, it's the time you can just forget about the outside reality, and just be around people you love. I don't just dance for myself; I dance for those who can't dance and for healing or strength. I have been Head Teen Boy and Head Man before, it is an honor."
Johnny Nieto is nineteen years old, and nineteen years alcohol and drug free.
"My dancing is what motivates me the most to stay drug and alcohol free. I know that stuff does not mix with eagle feathers and Pow-Wows. Also, I was always told not to drink because it is a dream killer. As I said ‘the only person that can stop you, is yourself.’
If you see Johnny at a powwow, you are likely to notice two things. He’s one of the first dancers ready to dance, and you won’t find him sitting out very many songs. Johnny does not like to waste a song.
"I don't like the sentence, 'I'm saving it until my competition'. I dance every inter-tribal and through the rest of the Pow-Wow. People always ask me, ‘What's your secret and do you ever get tired?’ First I tell them, I'm drug and alcohol free. Then I say you can never stop someone from doing something they love to do."
It’s likely that the dance arena is where he currently has the most memorable and direct impact on his peers. Here his motivation takes physical form, and his value as a role model materializes in whirling, rhythmic motion. He hopes young people notice. He dances for the joy of dancing, but also for them. He wants to see young people succeed, and he has his own motivational strategy to share with them.
"My tips will be set your goals and expectation high. You can be anything you want to be; all you have to do is believe in yourself. It is never to late to start bettering yourself. As you try to reach your goals you will have a lot of stepping stones to cross, and even more distractions, just stay focused on the prize. The only person that can stop you is yourself. And never be satisfied, that means when you reach your goal, don't say 'I did it now, I'm done'. No, now you make new goals and expectations to keep you hungry for more."
And what to do in the face of adversity, negativity, disbelief?
"I can't control what another person says, but I can control what I say and how I carry myself. My mother taught me to be my own person. She would say “You don't have to act like anyone else, just be yourself."
(Johnny Nieto will be the Head Man Dancer on Saturday, July 21 and Sunday July 22, 2012 at Redbird’s Children of Many Colors Intertribal Powwow, held on the athletic field at Moorpark College in Ventura County, California. For more information please visit http://www.RedbirdsVision.org)